What We Did On Our Holiday. The review.

There’s a moment in ‘What We Did On Our Holiday‘ when Billy Connolly’s character Gordie McLeod is called “a terrible actor”.
Sadly, as much as I love Billy, on this occasion I had to agree.

His mind seemed to be on other things while making the slight, likeable comedy reworking the best elements on TV hit Outnumbered.

Gordie is not a well man, so he’s bound to be a bit out of sorts, but he needed to at least look like he had more substance than a CGI avatar.
A shame as he’s the key protagonist in the tale of estranged London couple Doug and Abi McLeod played by David Tennant and Rosamund Pike respectively.

They and their three kids travel to the Scottish Highlands for Doug’s father Gordie’s birthday.
The film has a lot going for it. A fine cast, the right running time and a good, partly improvised script.

It’s also refreshingly dark during a key moment in the second act. You’re convinced writer/directors Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton won’t go there, but they do.

The biggest problem for this particular screening at Castleford’s Cineworld was the running commentary from the giggly girls I was forced to sit next to because of the controversial allocated seating.
One poor old couple arrived just as the lights went down and struggled to find their place in the dark.
And there was a bit of darkness amid the lit up phones, one to my right being used to find a bag of sweets that spent 20 minutes doing the rounds.

If I watch the movie again under better circumstances, I may enjoy it more, but sadly Billy’s lacklustre performance let the side down.
A shame considering how well he helped carry projects like Mrs Brown and 1993 TV drama Down Among the Big Boys.

It was also a tad annoying that Ben Miller and Amelia Bullmore were hired to play Scots. Great comic actors both of them, but surely there’s a wealth of fine Scottish thesps out there that could have got the job?

Truth is you won’t miss much if you wait for the pending TV screening – it’s essentially a glorified TV movie – but nice to see any British comedy on the big screen, even with 95 mins of rustling and unwelcome commentary.


A Most Wanted Man. The review.

Philip Seymour Hoffman orders a black coffee, doesn’t say thanks and drinks it.
Later, he lights a cigarette and smokes it.
Then, another black coffee (still no thanks) and a chat with a chirpy colleague who seems to have wandered in from another, sunnier movie. He drinks it. He lights a cigarette. He smokes it.
He looks across the German cityscape, a stunning angular building as his backdrop.

Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams crosses paths with a tortured Chechen who has helped a woman with her bags.
RMA looks concerned. He doesn’t look at her, despite the fact she has the magnetic appeal of iron filings.
He has scars. She wants to help him claim his father’s dirty money, but is she aiding terrorism? Who knows. Is Willem Dafoe a British banker? With that accent. Maybe.

Rachel and the tortured Chechen bond in a room of plastic partitions. Well they try to. He’s good at chess but can’t relax so he rests on his haunches.
Later, Rachel is in custody. I like the glass blocks in her cell. I wonder how they’d look In my living room.

Ooh, is that Cate Blanchett as PSH’s chirpy colleague? She really seems to be making an effort even if he seems distant, his mind partly on his next line and partly on something else.
Ahh no, it wasn’t Cate, but Robin Wright. .

Before the halfway mark, I considered leaving A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn’s tortuous, leaden, almost event-free version of John le Carre’s novel. But no, I thought. It’s one of PSH’s final films, he deserves some respect even if it’s so dull my mind wanders to other things, as you’ve probably gathered.
And the fact there were only two of us in that cinema one drizzly Friday afternoon made me stick around.

In retrospect I shouldn’t have bothered. I cared little about any of the characters, was bored by the pace, the plot and PSH spent some time on the phone. He may have been phoning it in. Even without the benefit of hindsight, he didn’t look well. Was that intentional for his character, a wheezy chain smoker?
Will I ever watch it again? Under duress, maybe.

It lacks the style and substance of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – the movie version – and while the novel may have been far superior, this was just a solemn, yawnsome exercise in tedium.
Anton had done a far better job with his previous George Clooney offering The American, but for a man who shot some striking album covers such as U2’s The Joshua Tree, this just looked dull.

In retrospect, I wondered if a split screen of half the film and half a freshly painted door would have been more interesting and which I or my fellow viewer would have found more interesting.
A Most Wanted Man… A most unwanted movie.

Lee Mack – Into Darkness

Around half an hour into Lee Mack’s routine at Sheffield City Hall, he asks one of the technicians to put a spotlight on a bunch of audience members to his far right.

In an extraordinary coincidence, Sheffield suffers a power cut that leaves the next 10 to 20 minutes of Mack’s routine bizarre to say the least.
It’s obvious he’s encountered many things over his 20 year career in comedy, from hecklers to rowdy members of the audience, but a blackout was a rarity.

Eventually, power slowly returns to the City Hall, and Mack manages to regain his footing.
Some comedians take their time telling gags, while others are like race car drivers, putting their foot down on the comedy gas pedal and rarely letting up for the duration.
Lee falls into the latter camp, so when he hits that technical speed bump, it’s amazing how well he recovers.
(I am a little biased. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times; think his sitcom Not Going Out is a finely tuned cracker, and his autobiography, Mack the Life, is a great read.)

Pacing the stage like a caged animal, it wasn’t hard to see why he’s among the best comedians working in the UK today.
Mack does a great job of creating comedy waves, and then surfing the crest.

It helps that his support act was Mike Gunn, one of the best warm-up guys I’ve seen, though one of the audience members did generate a superb, unexpected. punchline.

“Do you know what Saga stands for?” asks the stage.
“Send a granny abroad,” replied the audience member.
It brought the house down.

It’s unlikely you’ve seen Gunn on the usual panel game circuit, whether it’s Mock the Week or 8 out of 10 Cats, but given the quality of his material and his delivery, he deserves mainstream exposure.

The strange thing is, when the audience spilled out onto Sheffield’s city streets, it was hard to recall a single punchline from the evening, but even with the technical glitch, it was well worth the 86 mile round trip.

It helps that Gunn and Mack had created such a wave of goodwill, because getting out of Sheffield during a power blackout, with a confused sat nav and traffic lights stuck on red, was no laughing matter.

You may wait for the pending the DVD of Mack’s live gigs, but in this case it’s worth well worth ’going out’ and catching the duo in action.

Chasing Shadows on DVD – A Chat With Alex Kingston

I’m really bored of serial killer thrillers. If you’ll excuse the pun, I think they’ve been done to death.

When I found out ITV were releasing a DVD of their new drama series Chasing Shadows, I rolled my eyes (having seen 60 whole seconds of the show the week before).

However, I was curious to give it a look from the start, not least because it stars three of my favourite actors, Alex Kingston, Reece Shearsmith and Noel Clarke.
The saga of Ruth Hattersley (Alex), DS Sean Stone (Reece) and DI Carl Prior (Noel) searching for a missing girl soon hooked me, and 45 minutes later I wanted to catch the second episode.

I asked Alex her thoughts on finding freshness in a well-worn genre.

“Well I don’t watch that much television, so I haven’t seen too many shows where you’ve got serial killers being chased after by detectives,” she explains one lunchtime in LA.

(I do a good job of disguising the fact I am in awe having spent years loving her work in ER and Dr Who.)

She adds: “It’s a genre that’s been around forever, and it will continue to be around forever because it’s something that the public have an insatiable curiosity for, in the same way that you have endless detective shows or cop shows, lawyer shows, or whatever.

“It just seems to me to be part of our television culture in a way. So what drew me to play the role and do the show was the relationships really.”

The dynamic between the three protagonists is fascinating: an alpha male cop, a single mum civil servant and a socially awkward detective. Little wonder Ms Kingston signed up.

“I was intrigued by the relationship between the character of Ruth and the character of Sean,” she explains. “And then also having within that the triangle as well. I just felt it was something that I hadn’t done before in terms of playing a role.”

Ruth Hattersley is not your typical TV crime buster as Alex explains: “She’s not a detective, she’s a civil servant. She’s an analyst with the Missing Persons Bureau; she does a desk job, so she’s not somebody who’s used to chasing after villains, or anything like that.
“I just thought the idea of creating a department where these two characters are forced to work together – and he (Sean) being somebody who isn’t easy working with other people; he has very, very poor social skills – I just thought it would make for something quite interesting, occasionally comic, you know?”

One of Chasing Shadows’ greatest selling points is Reece Shearsmith’s performance as said autistic hero Sean.

“I like Reece’s work immensely,” enthuses Alex. “I was obsessed when he worked with Mark Gatiss and they did The League of Gentlemen; I was completely obsessed with that show.
“I love what they do and create as writers. And so I just thought this might be really interesting because Reece is going to want to create a character that’s sort of quite an oddball. As an actor and a writer himself, he will always try and push as far as he can do within the confines of ITV – the network – and I just thought I’d enjoy working with him in particular.”

Of course it doesn’t hurt having charismatic writer, director and recent Star Trek veteran Noel Clarke on board either.
“I didn’t know Noel before, and that was sort of an added pleasure, because the three of us are very different in personality and obviously in character and also in how we act, and actually I think it was a combination that worked out. It hasn’t been disastrous,” she laughs. “We actually all got on, despite our differences in personality.”

As an actress in LA, Alex could have opted for a project with sun-kissed locations. But she preferred to suffer for her art in Blighty.
“It was gruelling to do. The hours long, and obviously for the sake of the show, the locations chosen weren’t necessarily the most comfortable,” she laughs. “But I have to say that certainly the work ethic amongst the actors and everything was really good. And despite the difficulties in day-to-day filming, we managed and we got on, so I hope that all of our hard work does pay off.”

As Alex has been busy in New York working with Kenneth Branagh on Macbeth, ironically she’s still a little in the dark about Chasing Shadows.

I haven’t seen any of it,” she laughs. “I just saw the bits and pieces of it when I was having to do ADR, but that was before it had been graded or anything like that, so I don’t really have a sense of how it turns out at all.”

With thanks to Alex Kingston for help with this blog post.

Oliver stone’s untold history of the United States -DVD review

It’s a late night in 1984, and I’m waiting for jetlag to kick in.
I’ve buzzing from the first of many trips to the United States, and am watching The Hand, an early Oliver Stone movie that marked one of his first forays into the world of cinema.

Fast forward to January 1992, and like millions of film fans around the world, I’m sat in my local cinema absorbing JFK, Stone’s Oscar-winning movie which combines hard fact with some artistic license.

It’s the first time I’ve seen a film that successfully mixes a gripping drama with documentary footage, and tells a story so absorbing.

The standout for me is Donald Sutherland’s 20 minute monologue in which an array of facts via dramatisation and archive footage are presented to the audience.

It lingers with me for years, and the thought of presenting a history show as snappily paced and charismatically presented is enticing.

Which brings us up to date: another late night in the summer of 2013.
Not jet lag this time, but the same woozy feeling of unreality – this time because I get to ring Oliver Stone.

It’s late afternoon in Los Angeles, and the Oscar-winning film-maker has agreed to discuss his uber-ambitious TV series, The Untold History of the United States.

I’ve sat through the four 58 minute episodes (as requested), and if I’m honest, absorbed about half of it, while I managed to digest a chunk of the meticulously researched book before time ran out.

The latter is a cracking read, especially as a chaser to each episode. Like all fact-based TV/movie tie-in it enhances the material. I just wished the font was bigger.

My biggest fear is that Stone will catch me out, or put the phone down because I didn’t watch the other six episodes, but both he and collaborator Peter Kuznick turn out to be charm personified.

Let’s make no bones about it: The Untold History of the United States is one of the most ambitious documentaries ever attempted by a film-maker, and given the amount of material involved, there’s little wonder I feel like not all of it went in during the first sitting.

Imagine a snake trying to digest a small mammal, and you get the idea behind the enormousness of each episode. No unhinged jaws required for this but you will need an open mind and an equally strong stomach for some scenes.

All news reports these days are filtered versions of reality; violence edited for the sake of pre-watershed viewers, and even those after 9pm get a mostly sanitised version of events, so it’s shocking to see so many people shocked, executed, wounded, and generally hurt as Stone and Kuznick chart some of the darkest chapters of American history.

There are times when it make Game of Thrones look as cosy as a Disney movie by comparison. And like ‘Thrones’, Stone’s series is perhaps best seen as a box set of DVDs or Blu rays rather than as a weekly fix of facts and figures.

I sat through episode 10 a couple of times, and the second viewing was an enriching process. It reminded me of the time I saw Natural Born Killers at the cinema three times, and was absored by different elements of Stone’s controversial study of lethal young lovers lionised by the media.

Being a huge film fan, it’s hard not to ask him about his greatest works, and some of the lesser known projects he worked on, such as The Hand, Scarface, Conan the Barbarian and Salvador, as well as more obvious works.

He’s planning a revamped version of his flawed but fascinating Alexander, and JFK is getting a three US city re-release this year to tie in with the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
However, it’s clear that this series, which has dominated his life for years and absorbed a chunk of his own change, is the dominating force in his life.

The fact there are no talking heads, no computer-generated graphics (which dominated most docs these days but date like disco) means the shelf life should be a lot longer than many similar films.
One of the reasons is time; had Oliver and Peter added comments from assorted on screen contributors, there’s a chance it would have been a 20 hour show.

Part of me thinks that wouldn’t have been a bad thing, and I wouldn’t have minded Donald Sutherland popping up now and again lit by the great Robert Richardson, who worked on JFK and NBK, and with a John Williams score.
However, Blighty’s own Craig Armstrong does a fine job scoring the piece regardless.